Men's lib!


So far, the gender revolution has been a one-sided effort. Women have entered previously male precincts of economic and political life and, for the most part, they have succeeded. They can lead companies, fly fighter jets, even run for president.

But along the way, something crucial has been left out. We have not pushed hard enough to put men in traditionally female roles - that is where our priority should lie now. This is not just about gender equality. The stakes are even higher. The jobs that many men used to do are gone or going fast, and families need two engaged parents to share the task of raising children.

As painful as it may be, men need to adapt to what a modern economy and family life demand. There has been progress in recent years, but it hasn't been equal to the depth and urgency of the transformation we're undergoing. The old economy and the old model of masculinity are obsolete. Women have learnt to become more like men. Now men need to learn to become more like women.

Will this transformation be good for men? In the long run, we think so. But in any case, they don't really have a choice. Recent changes in women's status and in the economy aren't going to be reversed. Men must either adapt or be left behind.

Many men have felt a double whammy: a loss of economic status as jobs in traditionally masculine sectors have disappeared, and a loss of social status as women have advanced. Male wages are stagnant, and among the less educated, they have fallen: Median earnings for men with only a high school diploma have dropped in real terms by 28 per cent since 1980.

The way forward, we believe, is for men to embrace and adapt to the new, more androgynous world. There is no point in harking back. The world in which high-paid manufacturing jobs could support a family and where women were expected to focus only on being wives and mothers is gone. Women have shown they are ready for this transition. But what about men?

These disturbing trends have led many observers to call on boys and men to regain their competitive edge over women, so they can once again be successful breadwinners and leaders. But that's the wrong message. Rather than trying to re-create a patriarchal past, men have to embrace a more feminine future.

Instead, some men, especially those with the bleakest economic prospects, are retreating into what some scholars have labelled "hyper-masculinity". At the extreme this leads to violence and misogyny, and may be a form of compensation for low status or loss of respect.

But given their own limited prospects, these men are the very ones who most need female partners, with a partner's pay cheque, to survive in today's economy.

The male malaise starts in the classroom. Girls have overtaken boys at every stage of education, with higher grades from the early years through high school and college. Men are now a minority on college campuses, accounting for 42 per cent of graduates.

The greater success being enjoyed by girls results not from superior intellect but from better study habits. Girls typically demonstrate more focus, effort and self-discipline. Boys and young men are more likely to be distracted by video games, or even derailed by alcohol or drugs.

Armed with a better education and more skills, women have also advanced steadily in the workplace, and look set to continue to do so. This is not to say that the gender gap has closed. America's boardrooms and legislatures are still male-dominated. Women still earn, on average, $8 for every $10 that their male counterparts take home. But the wage gap is shrinking rapidly among younger workers.

The labour market is becoming steadily more female-friendly. Jobs are being created as the economy recovers from the blow it received during the Great Recession. The problem is that they are largely "women's jobs", so men aren't taking them. Women have moved into formerly all-male provinces like law and business, but men have not made the reverse trek into health and education.

Lately, there has been a laudable push to get girls and women into jobs that require STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) skills. But it is equally important to train and encourage men to take jobs that require skills in health, education, administration and literacy, so-called HEAL jobs.

Right now, HEAL jobs are dominated by women.

Men make up 20 per cent of elementary and middle-school teachers, 9 per cent of nurses, 16 per cent of personal care aides and 6 per cent of personal assistants.

Until men seize opportunities in these "pink collar" sectors, they will continue to lose out in this dynamic area of the labour market. Women currently dominate the sectors expected to produce the most jobs. Unless the gender imbalance in the 30 fastest-growing occupations changes, women will take up a million jobs that would otherwise have gone to men.

There are no legal obstacles to men becoming school teachers or nurses, so this is largely a question of culture and attitude. We need to match the campaigns to help girls and women see traditionally male jobs as appropriate for them with equally effective efforts in the other direction.

"Stewardesses" have become flight attendants. Good. So why not call nurses "health attendants" (if entry level) or "health associates" (if more highly trained)? Getting more men into teaching would have two advantages: widening male job prospects and, at the same time, providing more diverse role models for boys in the classroom.

Men need to adapt on the home front, too. Women are now the primary breadwinners in 40 per cent of all households with children under 18, according to the Pew Research Centre. Most of these women are single parents.

But the proportion of married mothers out-earning their husbands has also risen, from 4 per cent in 1960 to 17 per cent this year. In half the families where both parents work full-time, the mother earns as much as or more than the father.

Men are doing more child care - 7.3 hours a week in 2011, compared with 2.6 hours in 1985 - but there has been no increase, and in fact a slight decline, in their contribution to housework. There needs to be much faster progress towards a more equal division of domestic labour.

Family leave policies can be designed to help here, though the frequency with which they are relabelled "maternity leave" shows how far behind we still are. Right now, the United States is the only advanced country without a national paid leave policy.

There are some small signs of hope from the campaign trail. Mrs Hillary Clinton proposes a national mandate requiring employers to offer all new parents three months of paid time off. Senator Marco Rubio suggests a 25 per cent tax credit for companies that provide at least four weeks of paid leave to employees.

We should go further, and institute leave rights specifically and solely for fathers. Policy is usually built on the assumption that if there is a father in the picture, he should either be earning or paying child support; his role as a potential caretaker is typically ignored or stigmatised.

Sweden and Germany have already successfully introduced this kind of "use it or lose it" leave policy (in other words, only the father can make use of it), and a similar programme in Quebec demonstrates what can be accomplished. Since 2006, parents in the province have been offered a generous benefit of 70 per cent income replacement for a year. A critical feature of the policy is that five weeks of leave are reserved for fathers.

As a result, the proportion of fathers taking time off from work jumped from 21 per cent to 75 per cent.

The effects lasted, too. In the three years following the leave, mothers and fathers continued to pursue a more egalitarian division of both domestic and market work. There is an important message here. Policies deliberately aimed at helping fathers to take on a bigger role at home can have profound and rapid effects on gender roles.

More symmetry in gender roles will also reshape (and is already reshaping) what economists unromantically label "marriage markets". The old model of the marriage contract was lopsided; women would marry men who were more educated, more successful and older than they were. Social scientists, even less romantically, call this hypergamy.

But the idea that men will be the "senior partner" in a marriage is no longer realistic; soon, there will be as many successful women as men. This means men need to get used to the idea of "marrying up" - and women to the idea of "marrying down". This seems to be happening to some extent already: In 2012, 27 per cent of newlywed men married "up" educationally.

More men ought to be doing what women did historically: improving their economic prospects by marrying well. With apologies to Jane Austen, even a man who is not in possession of a fortune will still be in want of a wife - ideally one who has a fortune of her own.

The problem is that many men and women, disoriented by the shake-up of gender roles, are not marrying at all - less-educated adults, especially - resulting in a class-based marriage gap. Marriage rates among men under 35 have dropped by 23 percentage points since 1980.

Outdated ideas are doing some damage here. Too many men and women are holding out for a traditional marriage when the traditional conditions that supported it have largely disappeared. Men with poor job prospects do not see themselves as husband material. Many of the women they know agree with them.

More educated couples are meanwhile reshaping marriage into a more symmetrical and egalitarian institution. Married men seem to be adapting more quickly, probably because they are more educated and more economically secure.

In feminist thought, marriage is typically seen as a patriarchal institution. Marriage in the 21st century seems, in fact, to be providing fertile ground for a re-negotiation of gender roles in an egalitarian direction.

But rather than encouraging the transition to these more equal marriages, public policies are too often formulated, framed or communicated in a way that reinforces, rather than replaces, outdated gender stereotypes.

There is, for example, a growing desire among some policy mavens to create more "marriageable men" by providing them with the kinds of apprenticeships and wage subsidies that will enhance their marriage prospects. This whole enterprise is shot through with a breadwinner-male definition of marriage that is well past its sell-by date.

None of this is to say that better wages and more skills aren't needed for men: They are, desperately. But it is just as important to keep lifting up women's skills, earnings and incomes. We don't want a world in which men can get better jobs than women simply because they are men. Nor are we going to restore marriages based on the superior earning power of men.

Resistance to these kinds of changes in familial roles is often based on assumptions about innate biological differences. There is little doubt that evolutionary differences exist. But it is hard to say how much they influence the adoption of certain roles under current cultural conditions. We suspect beliefs about innate differences are often an excuse for preserving the status quo. If the role of biology is exaggerated, society will suffer.

Cultural recalibration to the new economic and social realities certainly won't happen overnight. Think how easily the terms "working mother" and "career woman" still trip off the tongue, by comparison with "working father" or "career man". About a third of adults in the US still agree that "it is much better for everyone involved if the man is the achiever outside the home and the woman takes care of the home and family". This is a clear improvement over the 1970s, when more than half concurred: But attitudes have shifted most slowly among men and women with the least education. Among those without a high school diploma, a majority still believe in the sole-breadwinner model (even the women split 50-50 on the question).

It has been clear for a long time that cramped gender roles are bad for women. It is becoming obvious that now they are hurting men, too. So a transformation of our ideas of male roles and masculinity is required.

The way forward, we believe, is for men to embrace and adapt to the new, more androgynous world. There is no point in harking back. The world in which high-paid manufacturing jobs could support a family and where women were expected to focus only on being wives and mothers is gone. Women have shown they are ready for this transition. But what about men?


•The writers are senior fellows at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 22, 2015, with the headline 'MEN'S LIB!'. Print Edition | Subscribe